“Clair De Lune,” Claude Debussy’s aural interpretation of the Paul Verlaine poem of the same name, is the strong stuff. Debussy’s lilting piano melody evokes an unstoppable tide of feeling just as the song’s namesake tugs at the ocean. It’s everything music can be simultaneously; intellectual and primal, joyous and melancholy, patient and immediate. Used as accompaniment to other art, “Clair De Lune” can be a forceful tool, but you’ve got to earn it. Sony C.A.M.P.’s new game Rain plays the Debussy card almost immediately to bolster its fairy tale about an invisible boy trying to rescue an invisible girl. The game then proceeds to add thick layers of sweetly sad music and art to keep the tone rolling. Unfortunately, though, Rain never bothers to build the strong core necessary to earn “Clair De Lune.”
Sony C.A.M.P.’s previous game was Tokyo Jungle, and the premise of Rain is as lovely as Jungle’s is bizarre. A boy is lying in bed when he hears a ruckus outside his window. He peeks out to see a giant, angular monster pursuing a girl. At least, he sees their shapes: Both beast and girl are transparent, just outlines in the downpour. Being the bold sort—the type of kid who usually stars in fairy tales—the boy runs out into the rain to help, following the chase through a giant door in his early-20th century, vaguely Parisian city. Brave as he is, the boy’s pretty screwed when he waltzes through the door. The girl’s nowhere to be seen, and now he’s invisible himself. From there, it’s off into the abandoned, dark mirror of his hometown where it never stops raining and he needs to find the girl.
That’s a fine way to start a story, and it’s a fine foundation for a tense adventure across a familiar but warped landscape. The Unknown, the tall drink of edges chasing the girl (and a dead ringer for the big robot in The World’s End), isn’t the only danger out in the rain. There are snarling invisible dog things, screeching invisible beetles, and bellowing invisible bull-tank hybrids waiting to snatch you up as well. All these creatures have lousy hearing and rely on seeing your outline in the rain to strike, so your time is mostly spent finding places to get out of the rain. The effect is pleasing. Each time you duck under an awning to slip past these feral critters, it’s exciting to see your body disappear, aside from some wet footprints.
Rain makes it somewhat more complicated to stay hidden as you plumb further into the city. When you follow the girl into a dilapidated church, you have to trick the Unknown into a back room with loud noises so you can slip into another room, get what you need to open the cloister door in the front, and keep following. Outside a sewer, you may step in a muddy puddle, making your feet visible even outside the storm, and you have to find deeper puddles to wash yourself off. These examples are about as complex as Rain ever gets, though. The game never demands much thought outside of figuring where to run to next.
A lack of complex problem solving isn’t a problem in and of itself. Starbreeze’s Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons, another artful fairy tale about two children in a pickle, also doesn’t bust your brain, favoring simple, expressive puzzles as its primary activity. Most of the time, you’re just walking forward, but it’s no less affecting. Why Brothers works and Rain doesn’t, though, is that even the simplest action in Brothers tells you a lot about the characters you’re playing. The boy and girl in Rain, however, aren’t just literally faceless—their only feelings are spelled out explicitly in somber narration text that pops up during the short stages.
You never directly control the girl, but she can only do the same things the boy can: climb a ladder, crawl under a fence, and so on. All the game shows us through action is that these kids hate giant monsters, and those monsters are so dumb that they can’t figure out those pesky invisible children are hiding out in the doorway directly in front of them. Because the characters are so empty, Rain’s insistent earnestness comes off as precious at best and cloying at worst. The constant minor-key piano music, dreary city, and the narration of the kids’ desperate sadness don’t build toward a cumulative effect because they don’t rest on anything firm.
What essence Rain does have dissipates by the conclusion, when it trots out Debussy’s “Claire De Lune” for what felt like the millionth time. Rather than try to milk some appropriately resolute feeling from the song to fit the ending, Rain presumes to add lyrics. Rain is so desperate to force catharsis, it pushes unnecessary bulk onto a powerful song. Rain is very pretty, and sometimes it’s even fun to play, but in the end, it’s as transparent as its protagonist, never substantial enough to deserve Debussy’s jam.